Fridley may never find cancer answers

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 10:44 PM

Talk on Facebook leads to a forum with Erin Brockovich, but scientific proof is elusive.

Her website describes her as a rebel, a fighter, a "gutsy broad" -- just as Julia Roberts played her in the movie.

Now Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader, is heading to Fridley to dig into its long history of industrial pollution.

But some are wondering whether the investigation, which started with a grass-roots movement on Facebook, is stirring up something more toxic than chemicals.

Brockovich is expected to be the star attraction at a June 27 town meeting at Fridley High School to talk about concerns of a possible "cancer cluster" in the Anoka County suburb.

Yet scientists and some local residents worry that Brockovich, and the Facebook group, may succeed only in spreading fear and suspicion that pollution is making people sick.

"In science, unfortunately, too often we have to say: 'I don't know' or 'We're not sure,' and that doesn't go over well," said Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal. "It goes over better when [someone] like Erin Brockovich comes in and says: Yeah, you've got cancer and there's TCE in the water and that's what's doing it."

Brockovich was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman. Robert Bowcock, who works with her as an environmental investigator, said the pair have not reached any conclusions about the Fridley case yet. But the level of public concern, he said, along with Fridley's history of pollution, tell him it's worth investigating.

Concerns in Fridley have spread for months since Jason McCarty, a onetime resident, created a Facebook page called "Fridley Cancer Cluster." He invited friends and strangers to weigh in on a puzzle: Could Fridley's cancer rates be tied to the toxic waste -- including TCE (trichloroethylene), a suspected carcinogen -- discovered there in the 1980s?

Since January, the Facebook group has drawn 2,700 members and joined forces with Brockovich, who now runs a company, Brockovich Research & Consulting, investigating suspected environmental poisoning around the world.

State and local officials acknowledge that Fridley has more than its share of toxic pollution, with five sites on the federal Superfund cleanup list, including Fridley Commons, the town well field. But they say they've spent three decades cleaning up, monitoring and containing the chemicals, and they believe they pose no danger to health.

"On these sites, we're fairly confident that there hasn't been any exposure ... for a very long time," said Sandeep Burman, head of the Superfund program at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

McCarty, though, says he's eager to hear what Brockovich has to say. "She's been through this before. She has experience looking into these types of things."

Fact or fiction?

The California investigator burst to fame with the 2000 movie, "Erin Brockovich," which won Julia Roberts an Oscar. It tells the story of a struggling single mother who goes to work for a lawyer and, with no formal training, uncovers an environmental nightmare. She learns that a utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, has allowed a dangerous chemical (chromium-6) to contaminate the water in the small California town of Hinkley, which turns out to be riddled with cancers and other illnesses. Brockovich (Roberts) sums it up with the line: "They poisoned people and lied about it." In 1996, the company paid $333 million to settle those claims.

But Schwarcz, of McGill University, has called the story "largely fiction" -- at least in terms of the health effects. "There was an environmental issue," Schwarcz said, "but there was no increase in cancer." The California Health Department reported in 2010 that Hinkley actually had fewer cases than average from 1996 to 2008, and that rates were virtually unchanged since 1988.

"That's the thing that really gets under my skin," he said. Brockovich "knows no chemistry whatsoever, knows no toxicology, and yet she is looked up to as an expert basically because of that movie."

Bowcock dismisses the criticism, noting that PG&E ultimately paid more than $700 million. "For what?" he asks. "They must have thought she had something."

He also defends Brockovich's expertise, saying she's investigated more than 500 cases. "Erin is not a doctor," he said. "[But] she has as much of a seat at the table as any of those scientists because she draws people out, she causes them to talk about the issue."

In Fridley, Bowcock said, state and local officials "have been extremely cooperative." So far, he said no pattern of has emerged in terms of the types of cancers that people are reporting.

Science by Facebook

In April, the Minnesota Health Department reported that Fridley's cancer rate is 7.6 percent above the state average. Officials say that's not unusual and might just reflect the high rates of smoking and lung cancer across Anoka County.

McCarty, however, said he isn't satisfied with the state's assurances. Through his Facebook group, he has asked people to do their own data collection -- gathering information about Fridley residents, past or present, who developed cancer, and forwarding it to Brockovich's investigators. A local news site, the Fridley Patch, created an interactive map for readers to post cases block by block (www.startribune.com/a1393).

Scientists, though, say this kind of "crowdsourcing" is simply unreliable; if people go looking for cancer cases, that's all they're going to find, experts say. At the same time, roughly half of Minnesotans will develop cancer no matter where they live, so the challenge is to find if the numbers are above normal.

"It is really a catastrophe waiting to happen if you just take a map out and place push pins wherever there's a cancer case," said Lawrence Silbart, co-director of the Center for Environmental Health at the University of Connecticut. "The patterns can be very misleading."

Bowcock doesn't dispute that. Yet, he said, people from Fridley have flooded him with e-mails about more than 2,000 cases of cancer, going back decades. "Is it scientific data?" he said. "No. Does it tell me something? Absolutely."

Not everyone in Fridley, though, supports the Facebook campaign.

"People have either jumped on the bandwagon ... or they are turned off by the tone," said Mandy Meisner, 37, who has lived in Fridley for 12 years.

Meisner, who writes a blog for the Fridley Patch website, said McCarty deserves credit for raising questions, but that the Facebook site has become an echo chamber of conspiracy theories and finger-pointing. In a May 30 blog post called "Waiting for Erin Brockovich," she wrote: "They are a large, influential group and their misinformation and fear mongering are spreading."

Fridley Mayor Scott Lund said the city has been testing the water for years, and it has never violated safe drinking water levels. "We publish that every year. We're required to. And yet people say we're hiding something," he said. "All of a sudden, it's got a life of its own."

McCarty said that he's received praise and hate mail about the Facebook site, and that it was never intended to sow dissension.

"I don't want to panic anybody," he said. But he can't shake the feeling that too many neighbors and classmates have fallen to cancer in their 30s or 40s. "It was always a joke in Fridley: 'If you make it to 50, you lived a long life," he said. "Nothing is going to change the past," he added. "Hopefully, we can change the future."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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